Film & TV

Local Film-makers Wayne Groom and Carolyn Bilsborow Chat about their New Film

Film-makers Wayne Groom and Dr Carolyn Bilsborow chat about their latest film The World at Her Feet, about renowned performer Marjorie Lawrence.

Adelaide-based film-making duo Wayne Groom and Dr Carolyn Bilsborow are well known for making feature documentaries about forgotten people. Their 2018 work Missing Pieces, helped add weight to the push for an exhumation of its subject, the so-called Somerton Man.

Their latest film The World at Her Feet, resurrects an international star from Australia, Marjorie Lawrence. A brilliant soprano, she came from the small Victorian town of Winchelsea, and ended up singing at the world’s major opera houses. When she contracted polio at a relatively young age, she became a polio advocate, and worked tirelessly with soldiers during the Second World War. Through this work she became close friends with President Roosevelt (who himself used a wheel-chair) and even sang at his fourth inauguration.

Wayne and Carolyn sat down with us over a coffee, their enthusiasm for their latest subject matter bubbling over. Until they started working on the film, neither of them had heard of Marjorie, which makes this story even more interesting. Early last year the pair was wondering what their next cinematic subject could be, when a friend of Wayne’s lent him Richard Davis’s biography of Lawrence, Wotan’s Daughter.

WG: So I took it and got home, started reading, and I couldn’t put it down. It was a fantastic story! Richard Davis had meticulously researched her life. I was astonished that she existed, and that now practically nobody knows about her.

CB:  And it had the familiar features of The Cods film we did of coming from the bush and making it on the world stage. When she left Winchelsea in the late 20s she couldn’t speak French, didn’t know who Wagner was. Within a couple of years she’s learnt French, she’s learnt five operas singing in French, and then she goes to America and starts singing in German.

WG:  Marjorie achieved everything she wanted to achieve. In 1939 she came home to Australia. She had promised her dad that if she ever became famous and came back to Australia that she would go straight to the Globe Theatre which he had built in Winchelsea, and sing there.  By the time she got there he had died, but she still honoured that promise. 700 people met her at Spencer Street station and they shepherded her on horse into Winchelsea and the whole town turned out to see her. We’ve got that on film in the doco.

One of the hallmarks of a Groom-Bilsborow film is the archival footage they manage to find in strange places. The World at Her Feet is no different.

CB:  One of the difficulties of putting this film together is that from the 1930s there’s not a lot of footage.

WG:  But Richard Davis thought there was a “This is Your Life” program of her in 1955. So we searched and searched and we finally found it in the archives at UCLA where I studied.

CB: The National Film and Sound Archive was where we found a Red Cross war film from 1942, with Marjorie singing Waltzing Matilda, but they wanted nearly $3000 for it. Meanwhile I was on eBay looking for old press photos and so forth, and I came across a reel of 35 mm film being sold in America. [The seller] hadn’t looked at it, but the first few frames said, “Marjorie Lawrence sings…”.

Unbelievably, it turned out to be that very Red Cross footage.

CB: We bought it for $100. It arrived in a rusty old tin, with “remember Pearl Harbor” written on it. And it was nitrate film, so it was delicate and highly flammable. We thought it might fall to pieces.

WG: But it was perfect!

CB:  What are the chances of that? On eBay of all places?

Sitting alongside this serendipitous footage, are interviews with major figures in Australian music, including Richard Bonynge, and a few surprise appearances.

WG: Ita Buttrose is also involved in this story! In 1951 Marjorie decided she wanted to write her autobiography. Charles Buttrose, Ita’s dad was a New York reporter at the time and he offered to be her ghost writer, for a one-off fee. So he wrote Interrupted Melody, and then MGM picked it up, made an Academy Award winning movie, and he didn’t get any royalties! Ita was great. She was so enthusiastic: like a young girl, talking about her dad. And then there was the other miracle.

CB: Which one? There were so many miracles! So who to narrate? Wayne had done the rough cut, but we wanted a female to represent Marjorie’s character, and we knew we needed a celebrity. Wayne always reaches for the top shelf so he said, ‘What about Dame Kiri Te Kanawa?” Well, have you got her number??, I laughed. But you leave him alone for a few days, and then he tells you he’s managed to get in contact with her. She’d watched the rough cut of the film and decided she’d love to do it. She’d just come back to New Zealand, but luckily we had that blessed travel bubble in May. So off we went on our little adventure.

WG: She was just sweet as pie and was so enthusiastic. She really brought something to the whole film.

CB: When she first watched the film said, “I’d never heard of Marjorie but I couldn’t believe the parallels of our lives”. She understood Marjorie’s journey which is why she added so much to it.

The World at Her Feet has secured national distribution through Sharmill Films.

CB:  It was just a perfect fit with them having the Met [opera] screenings. It’s been fun having someone else doing distribution for us, because in the past it’s just been us.

WG: And we finally had the premiere in Winchelsea last Saturday. 130 people turned up and so they were sitting in the Globe Theatre while they were seeing Marjorie come home in 1939 to the Globe Theatre. They loved it!

The process of making this film has clearly become a kind of love story between Wayne, Carolyn, and Marjorie.

WG: I fell in love with Marjorie. What an extraordinary human being. And it’s a puzzle why she’s not up there with Nellie Melba or Joan Sutherland.

Mayhap, this labour-of-love will be the vehicle for bringing this extraordinary woman to more prominence.

The World at Her Feet has its World Premiere this Sunday at Palace Nova Eastend and opens nationally on December 16th.

Click here to book tickets.

Wakefield Press are re-releasing Wotan’s Daughter, with a new forward by Wayne Groom. Click here for details.

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